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Creativity Poised At The Ragged Edge- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity Poised At The Ragged Edge- This post is informed by conversations with Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician

Creativity Poised At The Ragged Edge, Life Poised At The Edge Of Impossible


There is a thesis that I’ve been circling around for some time in these blog posts.  

It reminds me of an old standard riposte to make to someone who talks endlessly without coming to a conclusion:

If you get anywhere near a point, make it.

The blog posts of the last 10 months are working towards a conclusion or at least a mountain pass, but it is a detailed path involving a lot of points to be made along the way. 

It’s like flying an airplane: There are some steps that one cannot eliminate and still be guaranteed of a good outcome.

This is why many pilots have old-fashioned laminated plastic lists of tasks to be completed in order to have a good flight despite aviation having a perfect record. (“We’ve never left one up there”)


Aircraft cockpit


Please raise your tray tables to their upright and locked position, fasten your seat belts, but do not stow your electronic devices because you’ll need them.


Seat backs and tray tables upright


It is said that the essential ingredients to a good presentation or essay are:

  1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
  2. Tell them.
  3. Tell them that you told them.

To which I would add, rinse and repeat.


Overview Of The Territory We Have Explored


One of Bruce's favorite trails on Mt. Ranier

One of Bruce’s favorite trails on Mt. Rainier


To review, in an encapsulated form, all of the ingredients that we are bringing together:

1. Phase transitions- A recurrent theme, borrowed from mathematics, chemistry and physics, used to describe sudden systemic changes that occur as one dials up an input to the system. Water to ice, disconnected to connected, disordered to ordered, etc. Some phase transitions are to be avoided, some to be rushed through to get to the other side, others are to be wallowed in.

2. Combinatorics- A mathematical concept. The number of possible patterns that can be created by combining simple elements. (like different colored books on a bookshelf). This number can rapidly grow to astronomical size, so large as to be practically un-explorable. Making sense of it requires…

3. Constraint- Constraint ties together disparate parts of a creation and is part of the process of sense-making. We claim that a sweet spot exists, balancing combinatorics and constraint. Appreciating the true vastness of combinatorics is framed by the architecture of constraint. Paradoxically, constraint highlights possibility by inviting one to infer what might have been.


Knot as constraint


4. Satisfiability Phase Transition- In a system with an increasing number of constraints, there is eventually a point where they can’t all be satisfied.  Just before that point is a place where they might all be satisfied, but it is laborious to figure out if it is possible or not.





It’s like knowing if a victory is already a foregone conclusion in a closely matched chess game from ten moves ahead. It takes a lot of figuring, which generally takes a long time. 


Complexity Phase Transition

Complexity Phase Transition (Blue equals yes, red equals no, X axis constraint, Y axis time)


This applies to systems as diverse as food delivery scheduling and coloring maps. I assert that the difficulty of getting to yes or no is a key component of both artistic creativity and biological evolution. A great work of art works, but it also feels iconic, like it could not be any other way.

5. Poised systems- We discussed this in terms of computer models of sand piles. The sand piles produce simulated avalanches of sand as sand is dribbled onto them. When all of the constraints of piling up sand in many different places without toppling over become impossible to satisfy simultaneously, interacting cascades occur. 

These cascades shed some unsatisfied constraints and the sandpile again starts adding new and usually different constraints until the next cascade. So poised systems are related to the Satisfiability issue above, except they tune themselves to the region of difficult resolution, the grey area of possibility between Yes and No. 

If the new capabilities introduce too many constraints, some of the system goes extinct, a cascade as described above. If there are too few constraints, there is room for something else to insert itself into the system and perhaps persist. 

In some sense, the jury of evolution is always out, or at least takes long recesses.

Life pushes to the edge of impossibility, but it is a shimmering edge like a standing wave in a river, roughly maintaining its place and form with a constantly changing substance.


Standing wave in river


6.  The Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis- A concept borrowed from ecology. The most robust and sustainable ecosystems occur at a sweet spot between monotony and chaos. Complexity and robustness are highlighted here. This applies in ecology, personal life, and art. 


And, yes, I believe this has to do with the two points of satisfiability and poise above. The tuning in this case is the endless and varied fecundity of life, biology trying new possibilities in every generation in addition to the existing forms of life combining themselves in new ways. 

But what about the difficulty of resolution?  The fact that it is difficult means that it takes a long time for the system to figure out whether it is viable or not. Lengthened time scales gives the system time to evolve new capabilities and constraints, connecting the short timescale of ecology with the long timescale of evolution. 

7.  The Adjacent Possible- A central concept in our series of posts, with origins in complex systems science and evolutionary biology. The idea that creativity is a feature of the interaction between an agent and its environment where the agent changes the environment it is evolving in as it changes itself and thereby changes the spectrum of possible next steps in its evolution, a mutual existential dance. 


Darwin’s Early Vision


In 1838, puzzling over the birth of new species, Charles Darwin was seized by an image different and stranger than natural selection. He wrote in his notebook of

A hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the economy of Nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones. 


Young Charles Darwin


There was a kind of quid pro quo going on here—a new species either failed to wedge itself in or thrust out a weaker species. But sometimes there is a third way, and it has to do with timing or geography.

If a new species shows up after a constraint-shedding cascade, finding a place to wedge in is often easier. Other times it might be impossible.

Luck, as ever, is critical.  It’s more complicated than one in, one out.


dice rolling


8.  The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknown Unknown- These are categories of knowledge related to the dynamics of evolution. The known is self-explanatory. The Unknown should be more properly called The Known Unknown, and speaks of gaps in our knowledge that we are aware of, like not knowing the temperature in Minsk. 

The Unknown Unknown is about the things we can’t even describe. This speaks to the adjacent part of the Adjacent Possible- how can we recognize something completely new unless it is adjacent to something we already know that provides a reference point? This adjacency allows us to explore the Unknown Unknown crabwise—sideways and one step at a time.

Wow, that was a boatload of science. As the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said,


Give me an ounce of fact at breakfast and I’ll have you a ton of theory by teatime.


Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)


We’re definitely getting the bulk rate on theory.

What could all of this possibly have to do with art?


Art mirrors life


Not only that, I believe that art mirrors Life with a capital “L.” Our brains are good at recognizing patterns, and life produces patterns in abundance.


Art is about the creation of “art”—ificial worlds, self-contained microcosms of our experiences and impressions and thoughts. We make worlds as the world makes us.


For these worlds to be believable and compelling, they need to make sense. Our ability to make sense has evolved along with all other life on Earth and is thus affected by it. Art has to make sense to the evolved system of our consciousness, and our consciousness evolved in the patient but strict school of nature.

Our lives are informed by influences beyond the merely human. We are part of an interconnected and evolved whole, and to understand ourselves we need to be cognizant of this. The poet Robinson Jeffers (1887 – 1962) wrote in his poem, The Answer: 


Then what is the answer?- Not to be deluded by dreams. 

To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence, 

and their tyrants come, many times before. 

When open violence appears,

to avoid it with honor

or choose the least ugly faction; these evils are essential. 

To keep one’s own integrity,

be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil;

and not be duped by dreams of universal justice or happiness.

These dreams will not be fulfilled. 

To know this, and know

that however ugly the parts appear 

the whole remains beautiful.

A severed hand is an ugly thing

and man dissevered from the earth and stars and his history… for contemplation or in fact… 

Often appears atrociously ugly.

Integrity is wholeness, 

the greatest beauty is organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things,

the divine beauty of the universe.

Love that, not man apart from that,

or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, 

or drown in despair when his days darken. 


With gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. I’d like to share with you my new book trailer for The Artist’s Journey: Creativity Reflection Journal.


A playfully illustrated and inspirational self help journal crafted to activate the inner sources of your creativity and the outer reaches of your imagination. Lessons, creative prompts, poetic musings and stories unfold, exhorting you to reflect upon your life and to express your most meaningful and authentic art.

Get your copy HERE



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